Thursday, March 29, 2012
Take Two: Clash of the Titans (2010)
I grew up as a fan of the original Clash of the Titans from 1981, mostly because I was a nerdy kid into Greek mythology and liked all the special effects and fantasy aspects. Even with my fond memories of that version, I wasn't outright opposed to the idea of a remake when it was first announced; there was a lot that could be updated, from the effects (there are those of us who will always prefer Ray Harryhausen's stuff to contemporary CGI, but we are a minority best found at monster conventions and on movie blogs) to the sluggish storytelling. I dig Clash of the Titans, but it is FAR from perfect and hardly sacred. Besides, it would be hypocritical to get mad at the filmmakers for telling this story again when the original was based in ANCIENT MYTHS that have been told for CENTURIES.
But instead of just using the basic concept of the original movie -- Perseus is tasked by Zeus to go on a quest and rescue Andromeda, fighting all sorts of magical monsters along the way -- and taking it in new directions, the remake of Clash of the Titans, starring my best friend Sam Worthington, unfortunately stays pretty close to the first movie, right down to the fact that it's a lot of dead space that perks up for a couple of big setpieces: the giant scorpion battle, the treacherous journey into Medusa's lair, the giant Kraken at the climax. For the movie to work, it should have taken the approach of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead redo -- just keep the main signifiers of the property (zombies and a mall) and make something totally different. Leterrier's Clash of the Titans should have been a new action movie that happened to be set in the world of Greek Mythology. Instead, it's a lot like the first movie, minus the goofy sincerity but replacing that with a big-budget CGI polish.
So what went wrong? Back when he was still writing for CHUD, Devin Faraci published this extensive look at just how Clash of the Titans got fucked with over and over again, almost entirely after shooting had wrapped. Two-thirds of the material with the Gods was cut. The relationship between Perseus and Io was changed (and, as a result, so was the one between Perseus and Andromeda that put the entire plot into action). A different ending was shot. Based just on the changes that Faraci describes, I'm not sure there was a significantly better movie in the original version of Clash of the Titans, but there had to be one which was much more interesting. Any chance of a personality has been scrubbed away so that the movie can appeal to every possible demographic (even the terrible love story between Perseus and Io is in there presumably to keep the ladies satiated, because you know girls -- never happy unless PEOPLE ARE KISSING OR THINKING ABOUT KISSING). The result feels boring and safe, and no movie with monsters and swords and angry gods that's directed by the guy who made Transporter 2 should feel SAFE. Hollywood needs to stop bringing these crazy action directors to America just to make them into generic copies of everyone else.
In the same way that the movie Fierce Creatures brought the cast of A Fish Called Wanda back together, Clash of the Titans is kind of like a reunion for the stars of Schindler's List. Liam Neeson plays Zeus and Ralph Fiennes plays Hades. That girl in the red coat grew up to play Andromeda. I'm pretty sure that's Ben Kingsley playing Perseus. He's angry at the gods, because they keep fucking with the people to prove that they're still the ones calling the shots and should be treated as such, so he goes a quest to...um...prevent the sacrifice of Andromeda to the Kraken, a giant sea monster...and, in doing so...um...piss off the gods? I'm not totally sure.
At the time it was released, Clash suffered from two different backlashes, both stemming from the point of origin: Avatar. This was the first big special effects epic released post-Avatar (keep in mind, Clash came out in March of 2010; we are talking about a matter of THREE MONTHS), and it, too, just happened to star my best friend Sam Worthington in the lead. If audiences weren't convinced of his ability to carry a movie after Avatar, having him jammed down their throats as the lead of another one a mere 12 weeks later certainly wasn't going to do it. A Sam Worthington backlash quickly set in (and I know, because I was the guy in front carrying the pitchfork) from which he still hasn't really recovered. He had to go all the way out on a ledge to escape it.
It was strange, when the movie came out, that so many critics and internet fanboys really took issue with my best friend Sam Worthington's haircut. Yes, he's the only ancient Greek warrior in the movie sporting a buzzcut. Yes, it looks out of place. It is not what's wrong with the movie. Neither is the performance of my best friend Sam Worthington, even though I would agree that it's nothing special. He has no character to play. He's angry, yes, and maybe hotheaded? But it's not as though that gets him into (or out of) any real trouble. It does not bode well for the remake that Harry Hamlin's Perseus in the original '81 movie has a better and more believable character arc, even if it is the standard hero's journey. At least it's something. This Perseus learns little and changes even less, and somehow my best friend Sam Worthington gets blamed for being bland.
But the real nail in the coffin of Clash of the Titans (and, again, the movie made HALF A BILLION DOLLARS worldwide, so when I refer to it as a kind of "corpse," it's only because even though everyone saw it, no one liked it) back when it came out was that it was the victim of Warner Bros. ill-conceived to cash in on the 3-D wave just after Avatar got it going a few months prior. Even at the time, this was perceived as an incredibly cynical cash-in, and Warner Bros. had to really scramble to post-convert the movie into what wound up, by all accounts, the blurriest, most distractingly terrible 3D we've had since this stupid phenomenon started up again. I didn't see the movie in 3D, because I try to avoid it whenever possible, but there was not one positive thing said about at the time. Making matters worse is that a LOT of people saw it in this format, undoubtedly chasing the Avatar dragon, meaning Warner Bros. failed on a much bigger stage and burned a lot of people in the process.
Seen now, without the bad post-conversion 3-D clouding the debate (nobody could talk about how the movie didn't work because they were too busy complaining about being ripped off and theorizing about the future of 3-D), the movie's big problem is that it's boooooring. Are we spoiled as audiences, that movies have unlimited resources and can show us anything we can imagine? Or have filmmakers become lazy, depending solely on spectacle and resources and forgetting that none of it means anything if there isn't a story worth caring about? Because that's Clash of the Titans, a movie that's wall-to-wall special effects and action but with nothing to grab hold of, emotionally speaking. Knowing what we now know about the way the movie was totally overhauled in the post-production process, it's no surprise that it's a mess. But even a movie bled of all the "damn the gods" subtext could have kept the action scenes intact and made for a neat adventure movie. This one doesn't, because it tries so hard to be gritty and brooding and serious. There is no sense of fun in any of it.
Some stuff works. The giant scorpion fight is not bad, and at least has some energy. Same for the Kraken battle at the end, even if it is way too short and totally anticlimactic. Some of the creature design is pretty cool, from the blind witches to the ferryman on the river Styx to Jason Flemyng's updated Calibos. But most of it is in service of nothing -- hollow images without a center. It's the bad stuff that stands out more, like the generic team of dirty, vaguely British gladiators that accompany Perseus on his journey, or the blankness of Gemma Arterton as the awful Io (she was clearly aiming for "ethereal" but came closer to "lobotomized") or the surprisingly terrible special effects in the Medusa sequence. Seeing as how it was one of the more memorable set pieces from the original movie and how this new version devotes a LOT of time building up to it, I'm amazed that there was no one making sure it turned out better than it did. It could have been the one thing in the movie that everyone talked about -- yeah, the movie sucked, but that Medusa sequence was really cool -- but instead it's just one more dead spot in a movie filled with them.
The movie is not the worst. If you happen to love movies in which men with swords fight monsters, there is some stuff in Clash of the Titans that you will probably like. But there are way better men with swords fighting monsters movies, and shouldn't we always be striving to make the best possible men with swords fighting monsters movie? Instead, this is just another example of a studio-conceived blockbuster that confuses HAVING the thing with BEING the thing. Just because your movie has men and swords and monsters and fighting does not give it a pass, even within that limited genre.
And now we get its sequel, Wrath of the Titans, opening this weekend, to determine whether or not anyone involved with the movie learned their lesson the first time out. The trailers look kind of cool (if you ignore the Marilyn Manson cover, because it's still 1998), but so did the trailers for the original. And by the original, I mean the original remake. Without any source material to be tethered to, a mostly different creative team (Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebsman is stepping in for Leterrier) and a new hairstyle for my best friend Sam Worthington, Wrath has the potential to carve out some new space for itself. My guess? It's not going to be any better, only a little less familiar. I'll still totally see it, because I'm incapable of growth.
Release the Kraken.
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I would have paid an extra $10 for the Kraken to be on screen for longer than what felt like 90 seconds.ReplyDelete
IMDB says this movie was 106 minutes. I have no idea how a movie with this little in it could be that long. Did it mess with the margins and use really big font?
Last random thought: in reference to the backlash against Movie Star Sam Worthington from Avatar and Clash of the Titans, it seems like Gemma Arterton had the same thing with Prince of Persia later in the year (also because that movie was awful). It might also have to do her insistence on using her "actress" voice for everything. If we're looking for Kraken activities, eating her would have been great.
YES to all of that. And good call on Gemma Arterton's actress voice -- that's exactly what it is that I couldn't put my finger on. With her I feel like some of the backlash was a bit more deserved, because she was actively bad in things, whereas my best friend Sam Worthington had points deducted for not being better than people thought he should be. I'm not sure that made sense.ReplyDelete
I saw Gemma Arterton in a movie called Tamara Drewe, and while the movie wasn't great, it did prove that she's capable of a performance. Although, come to think of it, I'm still not sure she ever changed her expression in that one, either...
Release the Kraken.
I usually say "release the Kraken" during my bathroom sessions. And by bathroom sessions, I mean pooping.Delete
Haven't seen (and never will see) the new "Crash/Wrath of the Titans." I just don't care, but I'm glad Patrick stakes out blogs and conventions as the last sacred grounds where stop-motion animation is preferred to CGI. Makes you wonder which of Harryhausen's classics will be the first bestowed by an 'F This Movie' podcast appreciation.ReplyDelete
On a previous column/podcast either Patrick and JB (or both) argued against colorization of old B&W movies. Up until a few years ago I would agreed with that, but then the colorized-with-an-option-to-switch-to-B&W Blu-ray version of Harryhausen's 1957 classic "20 Million Miles to Earth" kind-of changed my mind. This is a special case because Ray wanted to shoot "20MMTE" in color all along, but back in '56 the funds just weren't there for color film stock/cameras so it was done in B&W. This original filmmaker intent plus the advanced way colorization technology has improved (it's not as bad now as in the old 'Ted Turner wants to colorize old stuff' debacle of the 80's and early 90's) gives us the option, via seamless real-time Blu-ray technology, to flip between B&W original version and a Harryhausen-endorsed colorized version that looks about as good as technology allowed a few years back. I'm a B&W purist like most here, but I personally like the colorized "20MMTE" better than the B&W version.
So, in the narrow instance of a filmmaker that wanted to shoot in color but couldn't afford to back then (or someone intimately acquainted with the film enough to supervise a properly-researched/implemented colorization), I'd say having THE CHOICE of a colorized-with-modern-tools version on the same package/disc with the B&W original is appropriate. Again though, Harryhausen's "20MMTE" is the only example of this I've seen that I can wholeheartedly endorse. Haven't seen the colorized BD version of "It's A Wonderful Life" (Patrick reviewed it for DVD Verdict though) or of any other colorized B&W movie except deliberately-done-bad colorized prints of "Reefer Madness" and "House on Haunted Hill" for the Rifftrax boys to make fun of them.
And it goes without saying that doing a willy-nilly colorized version of a meant-to-be-B&W classic (Antonioni's "L'Avventura," Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," Woody Allen's "Manhattan," etc.) and not including the original B&W version along with a colorized one is sacrilege. I humbly propose that the early B&W Harryhausen movies or fantasy/monster stuff like the original "Lost World" or even the original "King Kong" (which is good-enough as it is in B&W) would benefit from modern-day colorization easing people that will never watch anything in B&W into at least sampling these types of flicks. And again: no original B&W option along with the colorized version = no $ale!
That's the end of my colorization discussion in a blogspot column about the CGI remake of "Clash of the Titans," because I'm a chimp!
I really wanted to catch this movie in the theaters back when it came out, basically because the trailer, full of quick cuts and a rock music soundtrack, got me excited. I never did manage to see it, and somehow it got put on the backburner until about 2 months ago when I bought it cheap on blu-ray. Well, I watched about a half an hour and then took the disc out. I still haven't finished it, which I feel guilty about, because I like to see things through to the end. I don't know, it just felt like a big budget episode of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys to me. Actually it was far worse than that, because Hercules shot with a tight budget and was a syndicated tv show that could usually be found on Saturday afternoons or 2 o'clock in the morning. This was a major production featuring Qui-Gon Jinn and Voldemort in supporting roles. So when I saw the trailer for the Wrath of the Titans before Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (which sadly didn't win all the Oscars, I hear), and there was Marilyn Manson playing over quick cuts of action scenes, I had to remind myself that the trailer is probably way better than the movie, and much, much shorter.ReplyDelete
Heath! I have missed you. I got sucked into the trailer for the sequel the exact same way, and even though I explicitly remember my trailer-to-movie disappointment ratio, I can't seem to learn my lesson. I'm compelled to see the new one. I'll let you know how it is after I see it.Delete
JUST KIDDING! I can probably let you know right now: it's terrible. Can't wait to find out I'm right!
Tangent question: What'd you think of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS?ReplyDelete
The original 1963 movie? Or the 2000 remake, Jason (London) and the Argonauts? I'm a big fan of the former, but have never seen the latter.ReplyDelete
I want to know what Doug did that was so horrible that Sam "Jake-Sooooooley" Worthington is now your best friend?ReplyDelete
Doug understands that as soon as HE is in Avatar he can be my best friend again.Delete
Would you settle for him Photoshopping Sam Worthington's hair from his character in Man on a Ledge onto his character from Clash of the Titans? Just their photos, mind you.Delete
What I really don't understand is how movie studios keep managing to botch films where the story is based on classical mythology. It's like as soon as any sort of supernatural element is introduced, it's taken as a license to just go absolutely nuts with the CGI and focus entirely on the monsters and COOL BATTLE SEQUENCES.ReplyDelete
This just tells me that no one working on any of these movies understands how mythology works, and especially not Greco-Roman mythology. The only way it seems like filmmakers are comfortable approaching mythic material in a way that doesn't skew the focus completely away from its humanity is, well, by cutting out the mythic stuff. 'Troy' is a perfect example of this: no gods meant that everything was focused on the relationships between the humans, and the tone was consistent in that way.
But really, it's possible to have both Gods and Humans in a mythology movie and make it work, as long as someone gives two shits about the quality of the script. It's about balancing the spectacle of the divine and/or monstrous with the heart and emotional core of the human. The fact that the Gods' and Humans' perspectives on life are so different is what makes works like 'The Iliad' so powerful-- so why can't a screenwriter take a lesson or two from Homer?
'Immortals' did a great job capturing epic scope, but sacrificed the humanity of its mortal characters while doing so. 'Troy' was a great character study in many ways, departures from The Iliad aside (I still get chills thinking about the scene between Peter O'Toole and Brad Pitt in the finale), but the lack of the Gods hamstrung the depth of the relationship between Achilles and Hector: the former is aware of the meddling of the Gods and acts to spite it, the latter is unaware that his death has been essentially pre-ordained by Zeus and becomes a tragic hero because of it.
TL;DR, what we need is a movie that can incorporate the fantastical and the human in equal measure, and uses aspects of one to enhance the other.
Basically, we need Guillermo Del Toro to bring his "Pan's Labyrinth" sensibilities to Greek Mythology. That would quite possibly become my favorite movie ever, were it made.
John, if you haven't seen it, you should check out Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt" (1963). Indirectly (as background to other characters/storylines) it's about an old-school director (played by Fritz Lang as himself) trying to film a version of Homer's "The Odyssey" like the one you say you'd like to see. He has to get his vision past a movie executive (Jack Palance, playing a thinly-veiled caricature of Italian producers like Dino De Laurentis and Alberto Grimaldi) that couldn't give two shits about the meaning/context of the Greek mythology and just wants as many deaths/boats/armies on-screen as possible. Very little of this "Odyssey" movie makes it on-screen in "Contempt" (it's Godard after all, the prick would never give us that satisfaction) so, by default, we get to interpret the actions of the troubled human character we do spend time with as the puppets in the pre-ordained theater of the absurd that is life (i.e. a movie directed by Godard).Delete
It's a fascinating movie, and for some reason your post reminded me more about "Contempt" than the other movies that have kind-of gotten Greek mythology right on screen. Can't think of any beyond the one's Ray Harryhausen was involved in (which also took some liberties with the myths to make for a more fun movie, but not to the degree that the newer CGI remakes have).
Thanks for the recommendation, J.M.! I'd never heard of "Contempt" until you mentioned it, but it sounds like something I'd enjoy watching. I'll check it out as soon as I have a chance... sounds a bit like "8 1/2" for us Classicists in the audience, and the talent in it that you listed is pretty remarkable.Delete
And just as a quick addendum, since your point about taking liberties with the myths brought it to mind-- I don't mind if people tinker with an established myth in order to tell a story (for example, Theseus was a total dick but somehow winds up as the hero in a ton of myth-based movies), as long as the story that's told has solid characterization. Tinker within reason, though; if you're going to draw inspiration from a specific myth rather than just lifting the characters from it, then at least treat that given myth with respect. That's why the fates of Menelaus and Agamemnon in 'Troy' really irritate me, to this day.
Don't forget the most important part of Contempt: Brigitte Bardot's butt.Delete
Shhhh! That's a key plot point, don't give the whole movie away! ;-)Delete
Harryhausen vs. CGIReplyDelete
Harryhausen might have had slightly jerky movement, flaws in the models and maybe even occasional fingerprints...but they let you SEE what you came to see. His characters got close ups and could actually "act".
CGI - Blurry images and "Uncanny Valley" creepiness they try to hide with dark, rainy scenes and constantly moving cameras.
Personally, I'd rather watch Davey and Goliath shorts than "Wrath of the Titans".
Right on Kathy! :-)Delete